We were stunned and upset to hear the news of the death of Simon ‘Reluctant Scooper‘ Johnson.
We’ve been on holiday this week but our ‘to do’ list for Monday morning included this item: ‘Email Simon about a pint in Sheffield.’ We’re visiting what was one of his favourite pub-crawling cities for research next month and thought that, finally, we might manage to meet him. Now, it’s too late.
Every now and then, Simon would take a break from blogging and Tweeting, and the ensuing silence always served to remind us how much we enjoyed his jokes, astute observations on beer, and sudden outbursts of creative swearing.
It leaves us reeling to think that, this time, it’s not a sabbatical — that he won’t be coming back in a month or two, twice as feisty (a favourite word of his) and ready to knock some heads together.
Sad as we feel, our thoughts must be with those who were lucky enough to know him in person, and with his wife in particular.
At a little before 7 a.m., as the first dance nears the centre of Helston, its arrival heralded by the brass and drums of the town band, we see our first pints of Spingo Middle. They’re in plastic glasses and the man and woman drinking them look like they need strong coffee rather than beer, but that’s not what today is all about.
We hit the Blue Anchor at not much after 8:30 a.m. and find it busy already. Breakfasts are being served to the small army of temporary staff and to tourists. Some lads from up make macho noises but slyly nursing their pints, not wanting to fall by the wayside too early in the day. Some older local men, experienced drinkers, aren’t being remotely cautious. This is, after all, Helston’s great debauch — bigger than Christmas and New Year put together. We don’t, in all honesty, enjoy our pints. Our mouths taste of coffee and toothpaste and we end up feeling slightly queasy.
Back outside, with the seemingly never-ending children’s dance underway, we notice the crowd parting, not for a top-hatted local VIP, but for a pin of Spingo — a blue-striped metal cask — being wheeled from the Blue Anchor to a private party somewhere in the back streets by two grinning men who look like they’ve won the lottery.
It’s not all Spingo. Youngsters sitting on walls and first-floor windowsills neck Budweiser, Corona and Magner’s cider. Before long, every alleyway we cut down is scattered with empty bottles and cans. Wedges of lime squish under our feet. Through back garden gates, we catch glimpses of parties where everyone is holding a glass of wine or a small green bottle of French supermarket lager.
By the evening, as we return to the Blue Anchor for a last pint before the bus ride home, we find a huge bouncer in attendance. Physically intimidating, yes, but his manners are impeccable, and he shows great diplomacy in steering one drunk after another out of the pub and pointing them back towards their houses to sleep it off. They keep coming, the happy inebriates, walking imaginary tightropes, chuckling to themselves, hands on the walls for support. A glass smashes and we tense momentarily, but there are apologies and laughter, and the guv’nor, whose pub has been heaving for twelve hours, clears it up with a huge smile on his face.
This last pint of Spingo is not the best we’ve ever had — it’s a little warm and rather buttery, an inevitable result of upping production for the Big Day, perhaps — but it’s a pleasure just to be there amid the warm glow of a community at play.
As the beer blogs enter their Christmas hibernation, and you find yourself on a long journey home, or twiddling your thumbs on the sofa, novelty hat askew, it’s a great time to catch-up on some of those longer pieces you might have missed. Here are ten we bookmarked.
1. The Plot to Destroy America’s Beer (Bloomberg) — this article got tweeted and retweeted by everyone on earth in October but we didn’t get round to reading it until now. Lesson: monopolies threaten choice and quality for ‘ordinary drinkers’ of ‘normal beer’.
3. Shades, Dives and other varieties of British bar (Martyn Cornell) — ever wondered about the difference between the saloon, lounge, snug and public bar? This article will sort you out. (Or confuse you further by throwing in the vaults, the shades, the ladies’ bar…)
4. Terror at the Wenlock Brewery (Stephen Sadler) — on 11 September, 1940, hundreds of people sought shelter from a German air raid in the basement of a London brewery, with dreadful consequences.
Here are some bits and pieces we spotted around and about in the last few days.
1. We think we’ve worked out when Trappist beer first landed in the UK. A chain of off-licences called Arthur Rackham began importing Chimay (probably Rouge) in 1974, perhaps in the wake of the 1974 World Beer Festival at Olympia in London. It first showed up at the CAMRA Great British Beer Festival in 1979. Anyone know otherwise?
2. Here’s another definition of session beer for you to chew on, from Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn’s 10o Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die:
Surprisingly, it makes a great session beer. Just as you think its bitterness will be too much, it proves it can tempt you to one more.
Beer you want to drink a lot of rather than beer it’s easy to drink in quantity… that’s a thought.
3. We’d forgotten the term ‘designer beer‘ until we came across a 1991 Daily Mirror article on the then hot trend in ‘boozy fashion accessories’. Typical designer beers, it suggests, are Brahma (favoured by Andrew Ridgeley of Wham!), Dos Equis (David Bowie), Sapporo (Jason Donovan) and Peroni (Tina Turner). Chimay Blue also gets a mention, alongside a peach beer from Belgium which was supposed to have aphrodisiac qualities.
About this time last year, we tried to compile a reasonably complete list of beers being brewed to historic recipes. Now we note that one of the beers in the Sainsbury’s beer hunt is J.W. Lees Manchester Star, supposedly brewed to an 1884 porter recipe, and also hear news of a St Austell 1913 stout. (We’ve seen a recipe in their books from 1912, pictured.) The latest Fuller’s Past Masters beer, 1931 Burton Extra, has just been released. This summer also saw Camden brew a 1908 pale ale which was very tasty, but seemed (too us) rather too far from the original spec to really deserve the ‘historic’ tag.
Questions of pub etiquette
Maxwell asked this question on Twitter last night:
This might be a stupid question but humour me. How does one get their own tankard behind the bar of their local? #tankardetiquette
Watching the BFI’s Roll out the Barrel DVD again the other night, we particularly enjoyed Down at the Local (1945), a propaganda short made for British troops serving overseas. It was designed to remind them of home, and of why they were fighting, and shows scenes of pubs in London, Lancashire and Somerset. In London, the narrators decide on mild and so ask the barmaid for ‘two pints of wallop‘. In Preston, incidentally, they decide on bitter and mild and so order ‘mixed’.
A second talk at Eden
The Boak and Bailey edutainment roadshow was at the Eden Project again last weekend. There was no Oakham Green Devil IPA to demonstrate with this time, though, as it all got pilfered from a store cupboard. They left behind the St Austell HSD and Franziskaner.
This is another thing we’ve previously shared on Twitter. Apologies if you’ve seen it before and especially if you don’t think it’s got any funnier with age. (And apologies are also due to Viz Comic who have been doing this joke better than us for thirty years.)
If you follow us on Twitter, you might have seen this before. If so, think of this as one of thos US sitcom episodes which just turns out to be edited from the previous 75, intercut with clips of characters saying: “Hey, and remember the time when…?”
First, there’s an acidic, bile-like tang that we’re pretty comes from an overdose of black malt in an otherwise relatively pale beer. It’s not especially nice — like a trailer for the indigestion yet to come. John Smith’s has it.
Secondly, there’s the taste of Nottingham yeast. In the wake of our yeast epiphany, we’ve become ultra sensitive to its effects. Nottingham is a fairly neutral strain and leaves, for want of a better phrase, a kind of ‘dusty hole’ (fnaar) in the flavour of the beer. It’s not exactly unpleasant but any beer brewed with it, we’re beginning to think, needs the hop and malt channels turned up louder to compensate.
It helps that, increasingly, brewers are open and honest about their ingredients and processes, giving us the opportunity to test our guesswork.
Next to pin down: a suspicion that we might be able to guess, with a bit more practice, whether a given British ale is brewed with soft water. Our water in Penzance is extremely soft and the beer we brew here, on the same kit, tastes quite different to the stuff we were making in London. There’s a certain sweetness in it now, regardless of how many hops we throw in.
It can be odd but good for us to spend time with people who aren’t obsessive about beer.
Our guest this weekend speaks her mind and knows a lot about books, music, history, theology, food and, yes, wine… but nothing whatsoever about beer.
She was keen to taste every beer we drank, finding most of them ‘interesting’ or ‘nice’. Anything dark she thought was like Guinness. And that was the extent of her ‘engagement’ with the stuff in the glass.
How could she not be blown away by Westmalle Triple? Or Fuller’s Vintage Ale? Nice but boozy. Nice!? With her enquiring mind, how could she not at least be intrigued by the flavours, the hints of this and aromas of that? Well, she wasn’t, and our bafflement is our problem, not hers.
We ought to understand it. We’re exactly the same about wine — we’ll drink it, but with a shrug, and without passing comment or judgement. It just does nothing for us. We’re as interested in wine as in, say, envelopes.
Some people are beer geeks; others are beer drinkers; but, for a large number of people, beer might as well not exist. It’s important for us to occasionally emerge from our cave, blinking and smelling of hops, to be reminded of that.
We went for a run from Penzance to Mousehole in a gale yesterday. No bottle of Fuller’s Vintage has never tasted better, nor any fire felt warmer, than those we enjoyed on our return.
The only reason I started drinking was because of peer pressure from my mate Nick. I stayed at university for an extra year to do a masters and he had another year of his engineering degree to go and. Early on, the full horror dawned on him: “I can’t believe I’m stuck in this miserable city with only a teetotaller for company.”
I started drinking to keep him company and soon learned that Nick had a set of rules about pubs and beer:
1. Pubs should be dark brown up to waist height and nicotine brown above.
2. Red Stripe is the go-to beer for most situations, but especially nightclubs and picnics.
3. Beck’s tastes of blood.
4. Stella gives you headaches because it is “dirty”.
5. No-one likes Guinness, but you have to drink it on Sunday lunchtime — “It’s a rule.”
Having only been drinking for about two months, I remember vividly being bullied into getting a pint of Guinness and taking two hours to drink it. It only got worse as, sitting next to a roaring fire, it got warmer and warmer. I’d never tasted anything so bitter or so vile.
I was not reassured by Nick’s Sixth Law:
6. Guinness makes you shit treacle.
These days, of course, Nick is himself teetotal, and I’ve got way more rules about beer and pubs than he ever did.